Film Review: ‘Abacus: Small Enough to Jail’

“I wish this story could end the same way as ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” mused the elderly Thomas Sung, the founder of Abacus Federal Savings Bank. “But in reality, it is not that simple.”

“First time I saw ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ I had tremendous respect for George Bailey,” Mr. Sung says. “George was lending money to the community residents to buy houses, and that’s exactly the same purpose that from when we started the bank, it was our motivation to help a lot of people; a lot of immigrants.” In many ways, Thomas Sung is a real-life George Bailey; both are community-loving men turned bankers who are forced to make some hard decisions but end up standing up for what they believe is right and just. But just as Mr. Sung said, not every story ends happily, and Chinatown is no Bedford Falls.

In Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, veteran documentary director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) paints a stark and desperate picture of the legal battle behind a community bank headed by an immigrant family in the heart of Chinatown. Founded by Thomas Sung in 1984 to cater to the needs of the Chinese immigrant community, Abacus Federal Savings Bank focused on helping residents buy new homes and set up new businesses. It was able to weather through the financial crisis of 2008, but afterwards became the only bank to face criminal charges despite big banks around them such as JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, and Goldman Sachs being bailed out for being “too big to fail.” The documentary takes a closer look at the lives of the Sung family as they vowed to fight the charges against them, the bank’s upper management, in a harrowing, drawn-out legal battle over a period of five years.

The mortgage fraud charges leveled against them stemmed from an employee at the bank. Ken Yu, a loan officer at the bank and the case’s primary witness, had been asking borrowers for bribes and falsifying income statements for mortgage applications. By the time he was caught and fired, along with two other accomplices involved, the damage had been done. While the bank was filing the report to their regulators in compliance with the necessary steps of reporting the incident, a borrower who had previously given money to Yu ended up losing her down payment on her house due to Yu’s actions. The borrower called the bank, to which an indignant Vera Sung, Abacus Director and one of Mr Sung’s daughters, suspicious of her intentions, told her to call the police, sparking the district attorney to come calling. And come calling they did.

The film, while focusing on the members of the Sung family, also provides a balance of perspectives by providing differing positions on the case, which plays to its strengths. Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the district attorney who oversaw the case, and Polly Greenberg, the lead prosecutor, both offered their thoughts on the case throughout the film. When asked, however, Vance noted that the accusations of cultural/racial bias in the case were “entirely misplaced and entirely wrong.” The Sungs and their representatives still hotly contest this, noting they had no basis to be publicly shamed in a gang family-style public photo-op as employees of the bank were dragged to court in chains. Regardless, they remain the only bank to be indicted for mortgage fraud for the financial crisis of 2008, prompting the question to continue to be asked, but never be answered.

Overall, the film makes a quiet but persuasive statement in regards to the Sung family’s innocence. It delves into the domestic drama of the courtroom, in which the family pose as passionate subjects. With three of Mr. Sung’s four daughters having been trained as lawyers, and Mr. Sung having been a lawyer himself, much of the film is about them deftly explaining the details of the case with startling charisma onscreen as well as arguing with each other how to represent themselves in court. In an age where blaming the government is in, the film makes it easy to point fingers at the government-backed DA’s office, and even more so with Steve James’ portrait of Mr. Sung as real-life George Bailey. Despite Vance and Greenberg’s attempts to defend their course of action, the viewer is left with a sense that they were wrong to indict the family by the time the final verdict is reached.

In the end, the film succeeds in getting its message across. It spoke to me personally with its usage of It’s a Wonderful Life, as I played the role of George Bailey previously, and helped me connect with Mr. Sung on a more personal level. It let me recall one of the long monologues George makes to the panicked mass of people involved in a bank run in the film, which was also the basis of inspiration for Mr. Sung to show up outside his own bank when a similar occasion involving a bank run at Abacus occurred. It made Mr. Sung’s intentions, which are portrayed as steadfast and unwavering in Abacus, feel very genuine, and also served as a reminder of the importance of justice and representation in these trying times.

The film hits theater on Fri., June 9 in LA (Landmark Nuart) and the Bay Area (SF’s Landmark Opera Plaza and Berkeley’s Landmark Shattuck) with a national rollout to follow. It is now playing in New York.

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